Tag Archives: Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Round House“Just yesterday a white guy asked me if I was a real Indian. No, I said, Columbus made a mistake. The Indians are in India.” Presented as humor during a community festival, the deep irony remains striking throughout Louise Erdrich’s award-winning, bestselling books that explore Native American identity and experiences, caught between tribal traditions and a labyrinthine non-Native system that continues to elide Native citizens of civil rights.

Justice is at the heart of Erdrich’s latest, The Round Housethis year’s National Book Award winner. The second title in a planned trilogy that began with The Plague of Doves, (2009 Pulitzer finalist), House undoubtedly succeeds as a stand-alone volume. That said, characters in House and Plague overlap and intertwine, and reading the titles sequentially amplifies the experience of both. Small phrases in House such as “A local historian had dredged that up and proved it,” would not have nearly the significance (“rough justice,” an unfinished love story) without the back-story revealed in Plague. [If you choose the audible route, although Gary Farmer reads evenly and admirably, to have Peter Francis James continue his narrating from Plague would surely have resulted in an even more resonating recitation.]

In House, Erdrich narrows her focus on one of Plague‘s four narrators, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a man of the law whose wife has been gravely violated. When Geraldine Coutts’ errand to retrieve a file from her office one Sunday has her still missing by the afternoon, the good judge and his son decide to go looking for her: “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” observes 13-year-old Joe, also called “Oops” as he was a “surprise” in the late-in-life marriage of his parents. “Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon, we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

After borrowing a relative’s car to search around town, father and son finally find Geraldine in their own driveway, her hands still clutching the steering wheel. Her withdrawal into a silent, isolated world of her own will shatter the small family. Joe’s determination to somehow heal his mother – fueled and abetted by his (teenage-boy, testosterone-driven) best friends – recognizes no limits. Twins separated at birth, a drowned doll full of wet bills, a priest who gives out Dune in addition to the good book, a Romeo-and-Juliet-like separation, all come together as young Joe works to restore his shattered family.

Like its teenage narrator, Round House moves urgently, rarely pausing for breath. Once begun, the story barrels toward the conclusion, shocking and reassuring both. Grab hold: don’t miss this phenomenal ride.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Native American

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

Plague of DovesOnly when Louise Erdrich won this year’s National Book Award for The Round House, did I learn that House is the middle of a planned trilogy that begins with The Plague of Doves which, most serendipitously, was already loaded on my iPod. A bit of real magic, no? [If you, too, should choose the audible route (highly recommended), Plague's four multi-generational narrators are resonatingly voiced by Kathleen McInerney and Peter Francis James.]

Plague, a 2009 Pulitzer finalist (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge won that year), opens with the brutal murder of almost an entire family (a baby survives), is haunted throughout by the “rough justice,” wrongful round-up and hanging of innocent Indian men who are accused of the crime, and closes with the inevitable oncoming death of a troubled small town. But in between such tragedies and endings are the complicated, vibrant, interwoven lives of Pluto’s Native and non-Native communities, whose members repel and attract, nurture and avoid each other, who love, hate, marry, and betray one another.

Evelina Harp – whose family ancestry reaches back to a direct affiliation with Louis Riel, the legendary political and spiritual leader of the Canadian Métis (Native Americans of mixed indigenous Native/First Nations and European heritage) – is the novel’s most youthful voice, who is plagued throughout by impossible love. When she’s not suffering from impassioned self-absorption, Evelina channels the stories of her near-centenarian grandfather, Mooshum; even as his tall tales often prove unreliable, his venerable age makes him the town’s de facto historical harbinger.

What Evelina doesn’t or can’t share is filled in by Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, Evelina’s uncle-by-marriage, whose distinguished demeanor masks an obsessive dead-end love story gone awry; Marn Wolde, the suffering wife of a magnetic evangelical preacher who was once a paid kidnapper; and Doctor Cordelia Lochren, the area’s first female doctor, who retires in her later years as the first and final president of Pluto’s historical society.

Like proverbial puzzle pieces, a recognizable picture forms by story’s end – more specifically, what emerges most clearly is a gnarly family tree with branches both brutally pruned and surprisingly intertwined. That said, not every question gets thoroughly answered … with two-thirds of her trilogy to come, Erdrich still has a lot of explaining to do for her very, very lucky readers. Stay tuned …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Native American

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

By the time I got to college, the Michael Dorris/Louise Erdrich union was already legendary. Dorris was the founder of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies department – might I add, how ironic that took 200+ years after the school was created in 1769 “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land” – in 1972, the same year Dartmouth finally allowed women, including Erdrich. Dorris remained an adjunct professor until his 1997 death. By the time I graduated, Erdrich’s debut novel, Love Medicine, was already a lit class standard.

Through the years, Erdrich’s name always popped up on my own bookshelves. So, too, did her personal stories in passing conversations, as she kept in touch with a few of the same people with whom I kept in touch. The media never quite left her alone, either, especially as her writing career quickly overshadowed the originally more established Dorris. Their relationship proved volatile, and ultimately destructive. They were in the midst of a messy divorce, with Dorris fighting accusations of the worst abuse when he finally took his own life. I always felt a bit of a voyeur reading Erdrich’s later titles, distracted somewhat by thinking I might know too much about their writer.

In the advance galley of Erdrich’s latest, Shadow Tag, which debuted this month, her publisher HarperCollins’ Executive Editor describes the books as “a fierce new novel that resembles no other work of fiction by Louise Erdrich.” I have to argue that I found reminiscences of Love Medicine‘s disjointed narratives, pieced together with easy-to-overlook tiny connecting details told in gorgeous prose, and how welcoming that experience was to a hungry reader.

“It is a heart-stopping story with the tension and suspense of a psychological thriller,” the editor continues, “an anatomy of a marriage that leads its characters, as well as the reader, to a stunning and utterly unexpected ending.” Indeed, once you start, surely you will not be able to put this book down.

Irene and Gil’s marriage is falling apart. Irene, a historian with an unfinished PhD, is both muse and destroyer of artist Gil who has built his entire career on capturing his wife’s essence on canvas. He is a slave to his devotion to her while she is suffocating in his destructive hold on her soul. She’s trying desperately to leave, but her resolve keeps faltering. She finds unexpected understanding and strength with a half-sister who appears, almost deus ex machina, after more than four decades of unknowing … and she is (surprisingly) named … Louise.

Trying to hold on to her sanity, Irene keeps two diaries: the Blue Notebook she has in a safe deposit box into which she seemingly records the truth, and the Red Diary that she pretends to hide in her writing studio which she uses to manipulate her prying husband who cannot stay away from the hurtful words. Their three young children, ages 5 to 14, fall victim to the intense demise of their parents’ relationship.

Genius Florian discovers pot and the ubiquitous wine bottle, and secretly searches the web to examine his parents through his father’s art, filled with often disturbing, humiliating, sometimes pornographic images of his mother. Middle child Riel records as many memories as she can recover, and is determined she can hold her family together if only she could “figure out how to get the better of [her father] … [and] take away his power.”  Stoney, the family’s baby, born during the destruction of 9/11, captures his mother, as his father does, in pictures, and in his innocence, always with a wineglass in hand. “‘He thinks it’s part of you,” Florian explains to a bewildered Irene.

The three often huddle together, comforting each other without words, especially when the fighting becomes too terribly loud. When the ending comes, as it inevitably must (that much you know), indeed how it happens arrives with a sudden slap of shock. The pieces fall into imperfect place in the book’s less-than-10-final-pages (don’t you dare skip ahead!): “you trusted me with the narrative,” the final voice reveals, just as we the readers turned page after page with that same trust, a trust that does not go unrewarded.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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